My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Fortunately there was plenty of notice that Hurricane Earl was coming our way.
After three amazingly wonderful warm days with clear blue skies and almost too much sunshine in Harrington Harbour, I set off north-east hoping to make Blanc Sablon on the Quebec-Labrador border before the storm hit. I was at least hoping to make a safe anchorage where I could wait out the bad weather. It didn’t quite work out like that.
I anchored one night down a fjord-like inlet in an island. The water was a little deep for really safe anchoring but the spot was only open to the NE and there was no mention of that in the weatheer forecast. I planned to set out early in the morning and be gone.
Instead, I woke to a grey day with clouds down to the hill tops and worse – a strong NE blowing down the inlet. “Kuan Yin” was pulled up on her anchor chain – and just 50 yards from the rocky shore. Time to get out fast!
That took quite a while. The wind was on the bow, making sailing into the wind (called beating) a long and tedious process. The inlet was too narrow to tack back and forth. I wanted to get out. If this was Hurricane Earl arriving early I meeted to make a safe harbour as fast as possible.
So I motored out of the inlet and turned west towards the small community of La Tabatiere on the north-east mainland of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Visibility was about half a mile. Several islands lay around. There was a reef off about a quarter of a mile on my left.
The seas were one to two metres.
La Tabatiere was seven miles away – not so far but for more than an hour it seemed far, far away in the grey mists. Rain poured down. “Kuan Yin” sailed on happily but I was up and down the companionway steps into the cockpit, checking our position and the way forward around the islands, the reef and the buoys. I felt considerable relief when the first buoy emerged from gloom and I knew I was making progress in the right direction. (With the winds and the tides swirling around the islands in these kinds of conditions, it would be easy to be swept down onto rocks without really realizing it was happening until it was too late.)
By the time I reached Tabatiere the rain had stopped and by mid afternoon, the sky had cleared and wind had dropped. But it was too late to set out north again with hurricane Earl coming our way.
The welcome I received in Tabatiere was overwhelming. At first people checked that I planned to stay put and wait out the storm. Then as weather forecasts gave more information about wind speed and direction, several men came down to the dock to see if I needed help. One man brought several old tyres for me to use as fenders against the wharf. The local tug – which I’d earlier – left to move their barge to a safer location. I moved the boat and doubled the mooring lines.
The mayor – a large, jovial man called Randy – arrived in his truck, gave me a tour of the municipality and went over my preparations with me. He’d been a skipper on the coast for many years and knew the trouble these storms could cause.
Once preparations were made, there was nothing to do but wait. I had to laugh as the CBC reporter in Nova Scotia (southwest across the Gulf of St. Lawrence) told listeners that “post-tropical storm Earl has been and gone”. And we were still waiting to be hit. Where did she think storms “go” to?
By 6 pm the wind was building, the boat starting to heel into the wharf and the seas even in the protected harbour becoming choppy. I suddenly realized that the main mast was almost alongside the only lamp post on the dock. The lamp post was more than a metre from the edge of the dock, but if the boat heeled far enough, the mast might catch the steps on the post.
It was close enough to get my heart pounding. The wind was too strong to be able to move the boat by hand. With the engine running and the prop pushing “Kuan Yin” ahead, I was able to move her a few metres. Hopefully that would be enough – provided the mooring lines did not chafe through.
By 8 pm, the winds were squashing the boat against the wharf and I had to remove the lifelines to save them being bent.
And Randy – the mayor – arrived to make sure I was okay and he brought dinner; spaghetti and tomatoe meat sauce! What a kind and thoughtful man. Soon after that another man arrived to ask if everything was okay. “I’ve got another truck I can bring down and park on the dock if you want to get off the boat in the night and sleep on land,” he said. I declined but he left his phone number in case of emergency.
I watched and waited as the winds and the seas built. At the peak, the wind was reported to have been 90 kilometres an hour. The boat was heeling so far over that the main mast was inside the lamp post but fortunately farther foreward on the dock.
By 1 am I decided that maybe the worst was over – or maybe I was just used to the howling and the bouncing of the boat. I lay down and tried to sleep. Whatever would happen, would happen. The boat was strong and there was nothing further I could do. But I woke in the morning almost as tired as I’d gone to sleep.
I waited two days for the weather to clear, the seas to calm before setting out again. Shortly before I left La Tabatiere, Randy arrived with four sea trout as a gift – “the best,” he said with a glint in his eye.
After that I travelled north-east and and soon crossed the border from Quebec into Labrador. Labrador at last!
I reached L’Anse au Clair (Clair’s Cove) and tied up for the night. Next morning, the forecast was for gale force winds for the next couple of days. A fisherman suggested moving the boat. Already the wind was too strong to be able to move using the motor. Instead, I ran out a 300 foot 5/8″ nylong line and worked to “wind” the boat across the small harbour so that her bow was facing into the wind.
And there she stayed for three days. It was like trying to cook, read, wash, sleep on a waterbed with a five-year-old leaping up and down all the time. Eventually I took refuge in the local restaurant and spend the time writing.
And before I left L’Anse au Clair, I received two cod fish as a gift. “What do I owe you?” I asked. “Nothing,” said the man, looking up from hios small open boat, “just make sure you enjoy them good.” I did – grilled with butter. Mmm.